Cape Town - With a bumper field of over 1800 paddlers assembled for the start of the 61st edition of the Unlimited Dusi canoe marathon, the K2 championship race is poised to provide three days of cut-throat racing from Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg to Blue lagoon in Durban, with no clear favourite in either the men’s and women’s races.Three boats loom large at the front of the seeded men’s A batch, carrying the strongest hopes of racing onto the podium. Defending champions Andy Birkett and Jason Graham have completed a flawless and at times secretive preparation for the defence of their title but will be under severe pressure from the Dream team of Thulani Mbanjwa and Sbonelo Zondi, and new world marathon champion Hank McGregor and Len Jenkins.It would however be rash to exclude several crews poised to upset this prediction, including Olympic sprinter Shaun Rubenstein and Steve Farrell, the talented Change-A-Life Academy duo of brother Richard and Nhlanhla Cele, Under 23 stars Kwanda Mhlope and Lance Kime, Brandon van der Walt and Clinton Cook, and Cape surfski ace Jasper Mocké teamed up with Underberg tough man Craig Turton. The race also includes five elite male paddlers from the Czech Republic, including world champs K2 bronze medallists Michal Odvarko and Jakub Adam, Martin Kolanda and Thomas Jezek and Lukáš Kusovský, who will be paddling with local veteran Dusi stalwart Wayne Wilson.The women’s race looks a little clearer cut. The Adie twins from Howick have been the season pacesetters and Alex Adie's decision to commit to her sister for the 2012 race before heading abroad for her gap year suggests they mean business.They are evenly matched with the defending champions Abbey Ulansky and Robin Kime, who only confirmed their partnership late in December. “Dusi Queen” Ulansky knows how to race this race, having won seven of her ten starts, and despite the demands of raising her infant Jake, has shown she can juggle motherhood with elite performance with deceptive aplomb.The women’s race was shaken up by the late entry 48 hours before the race of Olympian Jen Hodson and rising Under 23 star Tamika Haw, who had originally been drafted by Hilary Pitchford who was forced to withdraw with a broken wrist suffered while training on a portage.With mild weather and no major rainfall predicted for the duration of the race, the 120km three stage event will start on the reliable medium flow from the full release from Henley dam, and finish on a release of water from Inanda dam for the third and final stage into Durban.The only variable is the now fabled water release from Nagle dam that fuels the long second stage from the confluence with the uMngeni river to Inanda dam. The sluices at Nagle dam don’t offer the luxury of graduated flow but instead release a substantial “bullet” of water downriver.The key issue for the paddlers is where they encounter this surge of water as the levels of the uMngeni rise and then drop dramatically, leaving some obstacles significantly more dangerous than normal river conditions.The first heavy rainfalls for many weeks late last week filled the uMsundusi river and in the process lowered the water purity levels, which for most of the summer have been excellent. The DUCT team monitoring the water quality are quietly optimistic that the uMsundusi will return to the favourable paddling water quality that paddlers have enjoyed this season at Camps Drift.G batch will be made up by the 60 boats that helped to raise a new record R368 000 for the race charities The Unlimited Child, as well as the SPCA and DUCT.The celebrities taking part in the race include TV icon Bonang Matheba, who will be paddling with four times winner Ant Stott, 5fm sports presenter Sias du Plessis and morning TV presenter Liezel van der Westhuizen all of whom will be backing the ongoing charity fundraiser, du Plessis has motivated a “Ginger Army” of supporters to paddle in massive orange curly wigs to raise attention to the plight of the youngsters in the valley.The youngest paddler in the field is 15 year old Michaelhouse paddler Campbell Green, paddling with matric pupil Mark Brown, while the oldest paddler entered is 77 year old Arthur Duncan.A Dusi record nine K3 craft have entered the race, and one solitary, brave K4 has been given the green light to take on the tight rocky rapids as part of a bid backed by Husqvarna to raise funds for youngsters in the Valley of a Thousand Hills that need prosthetic limbs.Seconds and spectators will be able to follow the progress of the race with a brand new app running on the race website www.dusi.co.za that will offer real time commentary from a number of experts in the valley. Follow the links for the Dusi website homepage.Another brand new innovation has been the release of a series of roadmaps that offer seconds careful measured directions to each of the accessible seconding and spectator points, with GPS co-ordinates of all the important turnoffs.The Unlimited Dusi canoe marathon from Camps Drift, Pietermaritzburg to Blue Lagoon, Durban takes place on 16-18 February 2012. More info can be found at www.dusi.co.za.